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Quickly Noted: Proof of H1N1 Communications Failure

February 8, 2010

Whilst Philadelphia was being squashed by the sno-pocalypse, the NY Times published an amazing article based on a survey out of the Harvard School of Public Health. They’ve been publishing survey results pretty regularly throughout the pandemic, though this one seems more damning than most.

They found that only about 20% of Americans received their H1N1 vaccine. Many Americans (44%) believe the pandemic to be over. And most think that the flu threat was overblown.

One key quote from the survey:

Our results show there was broad awareness of the public health messages on H1N1; approximately 3/4 of the public reported seeing ads regarding the importance of getting the H1N1 vaccine since December, but many people did not respond to the message.

This echoes a warning I made way back in October, when I said:

The author [of a post on the Walking the Path blog] thinks the CDC did a good job on educating people about H1N1 by utilizing social media, but is dropping the ball on spurring people to action. Specifically, lots of people aren’t planning on getting the vaccine, which anecdotally seems like the case to me, too.

Is that what failure looks like?

Is it possible that H1N1 public information campaigns are more than just education campaigns? Is there a second component to H1N1 communications, one of convincing people to act?

Prescient, right? Here was my proposed solution:

I think that’s the next phase in H1N1 influenza communications (or at least it should be). Move away from bullhorn risk communications. Begin engaging with your community. Right now, the best way I can think of to do that is to use social media tools — at the local level.

CDC should be offering webinars on how LHDs can set up Twitter accounts and how to record YouTube videos. The CERC folks should be developing curriculums to teach PIOs how to write using a social media voice. Health Commissioners should be scheduling live chatroom “office hours” where citizens and residents can ask them to address specific worries from the public.

I guess, then, I’m not saying CDC has failed in their H1N1 communication efforts. They’ve handled the first phase extremely well. Kudos, really. I think that believing they can continue to communicate the same way going forward, in this second phase, is their failure. And there’s absolutely nothing they can do about it. The fact is, the CDC is just not equipped to act as a local presence everywhere, nor should they be. Pandemic influenza is, and has always been, a local emergency that just happens to occur everywhere. The response, by definition, should be locally coordinated.

People heard the message – flu abounds! CDC gets lots of great things written about their outreach efforts; and deservedly so. Flu vaccine is available – crickets abound! CDC gets dragged through the coals; and I would argue undeservedly so.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Emergency Communications Network permalink
    February 8, 2010 3:10 pm

    You do such a great job with your blog. Keep up the great work!

    • February 8, 2010 5:00 pm

      I’m glad you findy posts worthwhile. Thanks so much for stopping by!


  2. February 11, 2010 4:50 pm

    The biggest commo idea you mention above is the idea of having virtual office hours, video presentations/chats with the appropriate people in the LHD (not just Commish). I think that sort of thing would have a greater impact than almost anything other than a massive effort for in-person outreach, and would be much easier to pull off.

    Either way, what public health, especially local, needs to do more of is develop and use the personal connection to their communities so that they stop being “them” or “the government” and become “Josh” or “Dr. Milman”. Once that personal connection is made the messaging becomes much easier.

    I have no idea where they’ll find the additional time to put into this sort of outreach, but I do think it will make a huge different.

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